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Rice revolution's hero picks up new, and tougher, task

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Some people just know how to make a difference in Asia -- Ghandi, Confucius, Genghis Khan, Mao, and Hank Beachell. Yes, Hank Beachell, a humble Texas farmer who used his agricultural genius to help double and triple rice crops in irrigated paddies.

He is credited for being the person responsible for developing the first strain of miracle rice, which touched off Asia's "green revolution" and kept its growing masses from starvation.

While Asia's population increases at about 2.5 percent a year, rice production today keeps pace at 2.7 percent growth.

New rice varieties also unleash new problems, such as how to increase imports of petroleum-based fertilizers and change peasant labor and land practices. And for two-thirds of Asia's rice farmers who lack irrigation and must plant at the mercy of rain or drought, much research still needs to be done.

In 1962, however, when Hank Beachell left his native Beaumont -- where he developed successful long-rice varieties for US growers -- he had no idea what laid ahead for him after accepting a job at the International Rice Research Institute outside Manila.

"I never expected to leave Texas," recalls the tall, light-haired American, whose experience covers a half century of rice breeding.

"We knew something had to be done. It stood to reason that rice yields could be increased.

"I was told what basic rice architecture was needed --sturdy stem, insect resistent, fast-growing, and so forth.

"So I found an Indonesian variety called Peta, which had erect leaves and stood up well, and combined that with a semi-dwarf and smooth-looking rice from Taiwan, called 'Dee go woo gen,'" remembers the quiet and unassuming Mr. Beachell.

After four years and seven unsuccessful genetic crossings at the research institute's large outdoor laboratory, he hybridized the now famous IR8.

The new seed proved to be just the first of many breeds from the research center, which was set up with grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Hank Beachell's colleagues say he never really received the acknowledgement that Norman E. Borlaug, a Nobel Prize recipient, got for developing new wheat strains.

"IR8 brought about more social change in Asia than all the social sciences combined," says Nyle C. Brady, director of the International rice Research Institute.

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